Big Ring Bother

If you are a cycling athlete, ride a single speed/fixie, use a 1×11 (see footnote) or have legs as strong as oak, then move on, nothing to see here; however if you are one of the 99% like the rest of us, I’ve got some news – blind homage to the “big ring” when you are struggling up a hill, along a false flat (or on the flat if against a headwind) is a mug’s game.

Why do I say that ? Isn’t it a bit rude…. after all, the macho thing to do when riding is to get into the big ring and stay there come hell or high water, the inner ring is for sissies ! If you are new to cycling, you may be wondering what the heck I am harping on about…or if you are a seasoned cyclist, then you might find my assertion somewhat controversial.

So let me explain a little more what I mean, and if this resonates with you or you reach an ‘a-ha moment’, read on as I have some tips on smoother gear changes and how to avoid the “big ring” problems.

First of all, the “big ring” is the large chainring attached to your cranks, with either 50 teeth (called a compact) or 53 teeth (called a standard). There are other options available, but a compact is the most common for new road cyclists, with standard and above for racing and time trials (and also smaller for cyclocross bikes). You will also have a second inner ring with 34 teeth on a compact or 39 on a standard. You may also have a third, smaller inner ring on a ‘triple’ , however these are more common on touring bikes that need extra gears for climbing hills fully loaded with your tent, panniers, etc on the bike. To complete the picture, our bikes have a Cassette on the back consisting of either 9, 10 or 11 sprockets, ranging from 11 teeth to 25 teeth (or 29/30 teeth if you climb lots of hills or are not that strong yet).  We use a shifter (usually) on the handlebars to move the chain across the range from the lowest gear (biggest sprocket) to the highest gear (smallest sprockets), changing the gear according to our speed, aiming to keep a constant pedal speed (cadence) whether we are on the flat, going down a hill, or climbing a hill.  All these bits when put together are called the Groupset.   It sounds a bit complicated but you get the hang of gears very quickly once you start to ride your bike beyond a trip to the shops 🙂  This article from gives a good comparison of which groupset to use, but for me, all my bikes have a compact groupset to cope with the short, sharp type of the hills we get in the UK.

So what’s the problem? If you have read my previous blog “Cadence is King” you’ll understand that when we go up a hill (or any long gradient), unless we have super-human powers, we need to use our lower (easier) gears to keep going (in the same way we need to use our gears in a car).

If we adopt the strategy of keeping in the big ring come what may, as we tire or the hill kicks up, we run out of gears, our cadence slows down to the point where we are using all our strength and muscles to push those pedals around, and when it gets really steep, we may struggle to keep the bike upright, weave across the road, ultimately getting off and walk. Perhaps as an act of desperation we may finally try to change to the inner ring, but due to the tension on the chain we risk either it snapping, or it does not fully engage the inner ring, slipping or coming off altogether; in these cases we hit the deck, as per the poor chap below who had his chain slip as he’d left it too late to change, caught out by the steep hill.







On a longer ride with lots of hills, if we do manage to get up the first hills in the big ring, trying to smash it, we will have had to rely on sheer strength of our leg muscles, so we could find ourselves walking the last few hills if the legs give up. Once your legs are gone, there is no way back.

At last weekend’s Velo Birmingham I passed countless guys in the big ring, grinding their way up the early hills, red faced and eyes popping out of their sockets due to the effort, only to see them later in the ride, walking the last few hills, and I am talking young guys too, not just those of us who like to be considered as middle-aged cycling warriors 🙂

Watch this short video and see if you can see which riders are spinning it up in low gears using the inner ring, and those that are grinding up in the big ring.  Which style do you prefer ?

So, given the amount of cycling blogs and Instagrams giving cycling advice, etc, why do we still see and possibly experience these types of problems. It could be because either we are getting caught out by our competitiveness,  trying to beat our previous time, or wanting to beat other riders, or misled to thinking that the inner ring is for wimps (I hear phrases such as “yeah I did the whole ride in the big ring” more frequently than necessary) or simply because of a lack of awareness of the benefits that the inner ring can bring to your cycling.

But hang on a moment, if I use the inner ring won’t I be going at a snail’s pace ?   Let’s look at the maths.  We should be trying to keep our cadence high  ( 70rpm is a good benchmark) and use our gears to keep this pace constant.  When we are in the big ring the gearing is higher (more difficult) and hence our cadence drops.  In the above video you could see that the guys struggling had a cadence of probably less than 45 rpm.   If we do a comparison of using the inner ring to keep a higher pace rather than using the big ring with a lower cadence you can see from the screenshots below that by moving to the inner ring (34 teeth) allow you to maintain, if not increase your speed (in this example) from 6.1mph to 6.4mph, and importantly, because it is an easier gear, you do not need to strain yourself.


Of course this does not come for free.  Cycling at a higher cadence will increase the demand on your cardiovascular system, so you will need to be more aerobically fit.  That comes with regular cycling.  We should consider riding throughout the year in the UK, so you do not need to put this off to the spring; a common axiom amongst cyclists is “winter miles equals summer smiles”.

So what is my advice ? Firstly, treat your inner ring as your friend. If there is a hill approaching, and you think you need to change to one of the lower gears, as you start to change down, at about the middle cog on the cassette (this is flexible to your strength and preference) change to the inner ring on the front. You may need to compensate by changing up a gear on the back, but the idea is to keep your cadence even, not grind or spin out. With practise this will become second nature. The secret is to read the road ahead of you, and change to the inner ring early; this keeps the whole process of gear changing smooth, with no sudden pressure being placed on the chain.

My second piece of advice is to anticipate the unexpected. When coming to a T-junction, as you change down the gears, also consider changing to the inner ring at the front. This will not only allow you to pull away much easier, but if the road you have pulled onto quickly becomes a hill, then you are more able to cope.  Secondly, when you’ve just flown down a steep hill to say a river crossing or valley floor, it is likely that the road will now turn up the other side of the valley, so anticipate this and consider moving to the inner ring when the road starts to rise and while you still have momentum.

If you follow this advice, or at least consider it, apart from avoiding chain slip falls and running out of steam, by using the inner ring more than perhaps you do now, you will strengthen and engage your cardiovascular system (ie gain aerobic fitness), and combining this with your muscles will help you get over that hill much faster and with less effort than if you’d stuck to the big ring.

This advice applies to all cyclists, however can have a profound impact on female cyclists; by increasing cadence and using your inner ring you not only increase your aerobic fitness (chances are you have considered or have tried spinning classes anyway, so get the basic idea), but you do not need to build big leg muscles to achieve your goals.

Considering the impact on your bike, in addition to the benefits of being able to climb hills with less effort, you will prevent yourself from committing the crime of ‘chain crossing’. This is where you are in the big ring at the front and the lowest gear (biggest cog) on the back (crossing is also with the inner ring at the front and smallest cog at the back).    Because ‘crossing’ pulls the chain diagonally from front to back, the entire groupset (rear cassette, chain, and chainring) are coming together at angles that result in accelerated wear, meaning you’ll need to replace your components (££) more frequently.

So if you want to enjoy your cycling, stop dreading hills, and avoid unnecessarily shelling out for new components sooner than necessary, use your inner ring. Don’t be a “big ring” mug.

Ps, check out my video on pedalling technique for tips on how to increase your cadence.


The 1×11. Now it would be remiss for me not to mention an upcoming groupset called the x1. With this setup, you have a single chainring at the front and a rear cassette at the back that can have 36 or even 42 teeth ! More common with cyclocross bikes due to its simplicity and ability to handle the mud and sand which form parts of a cyclocross circuit. I know a few people who have taken the plunge, it’s a leap of faith, but if the idea of using the inner ring is abhorrent, then try a 1×11.

Stay out longer this Autumn

The nights are starting to draw in fast as we approach Autumn; on the downside this means less time in the evening or morning to do your midweek training rides, however the beauty of Autumn, the dazzling colours and freshness makes getting out there even more worth it.

I am a huge fan of riding throughout the whole year; Autumn is a very special time, allowing us cyclists to take in the best that nature can show us, and here in the UK it is rarely too cold to go out on your bike.  So there really is no need to pack away thoughts of wonderful rides this time of year, in fact it is perfect as long as you prepare (as you would for a Summer ride).   So what does good preparation look like ?

The Bike:   You do not need to do too much different in preparing your bike for Autumn rides from Summer, however there are a couple of points I’d like to share from my own experiences.

  1. Tyres : If it is damp, slightly lower your tyre pressure, look at your tyre’s pressure range, don’t go too low or you may start to get pinch punctures (the inner tube may get caught between the tyre and the rim). A lower pressure will give you better grip – but note that due to the narrow tyres on most road bikes, we don’t need to worry too much about tread – the chances of aquaplaning are very small; what we do need to worry about is having no cracks, bulges or signs of wear. With there being more chance of rain, or debris on the road due to wind, consider changing your tyres to heavier “puncture resistant” tyres such as my favourite from Continental, called “Gaterskins”, they have slightly higher rolling resistance, but in my humble opinion and experience worth every penny. If in doubt, ask your local dealer, it is a bit like religion, everyone will have an opinion on the best puncture resistant tyre, but it is pretty much the same unless you intend going professional. Here is  a review of the main contenders.
  2. Brakes and Rims: Clean and check after every ride.  Grit or salt in the brake pads not only cause excessive and unnecessary wear and damage to the rim, but you will accelerate the wear on the brake pads.
  3. Chain and gears. As above, clean and lubricate the chain, the cogs, and both the front and rear derailleurs after each wet ride; there have been great developments in the types of lubricant you can choose, or you could just use something like WD-40, or if your budget can cope, a ceramic “wet” lubricant – it depends on what you are prepared to spend, but not taking care of your components means they will wear out very quickly, it is false economy to put this off.
  4. Mudguards. There is a little controversy here; some people hate mudguards, some think they are just the best thing. If you are one of the former, try instead an “ass saver” – a small piece of plastic that attaches to your seat and stops the majority of water splashing up your back. If you are one of the latter, then make sure you fit mudguards that have Secu-Clips, such as on SKS mudguards (frankly I would not use anything else). I highly recommend you read this article before making your choice.
  5. Lights. For a one hour interval training ride in daylight, a good rear light is essential; for longer rides at weekends, take a spare so you don’t get caught out by a low battery (their charge doesn’t last as long in the cold). The sun is getting lower in the sky, so do take a front light, this is more to be seen than to see, so you don’t need to go overboard on the lumens 🙂

Your Clothing.  There are a huge number of articles about what to wear in the Autumn/Winter, but here is my advice.

  1. Several layers are much better than one or two heavy layers. Wear a good base layer (don’t giggle, but in my case a string vest is superb), then a jersey, followed by a long sleeved wind/shower proof jacket. If you do not want to wear a jacket, i.e. no signs of rain, then there are a number of alternatives such as the famous Gabba (a groundbreaking windproof top), a good merino wool jersey, or a windproof gillet   If you are intending using short sleeves, take/wear a good pair of arm warmers, and likewise long legged tights/bibs for the legs or at least leg/knee warmers.
  2. Unless you are naturally gifted with warm hands, wear long fingered gloves – there is a huge range on the market, there are even ranges designed for different temperatures!
  3. To keep your feet warm, wear overshoes.  These are covers that fit over your normal cycle shoe and are  water and windproof, but only to an extent.  There are heavy duty versions that will keep your feet dry and warm for longer, but if you want a 100% guarantee then you’ll need to invest in proper winter cycling shoes, which can be expensive.  I have found that a cheaper option is to stick with overshoes and get some cycling socks that have two layers, separated by a waterproof membrane.
  4. For cycling glasses, buy ones with interchangeable lenses so that you can swap the dark lens for sunny days with a clear or yellow lens for lower light conditions.
  5. One of my other “go to” items is the neck warmer. These are highly versatile; not only keeping your neck warm, but can be pulled up over the chin keeping that warm, or even worn on your head as a cap if you are for instance “folically challenged”.
  6. Finally, please keep visible, wear a “high viz” gillet (wind stopper) or clothing with high viz strips.

So keep riding through the Autumn.  The feelings of wellbeing are enhanced as you feel more in touch with the changing world around you; we are after all creatures born out of nature; it is unnatural to confine ourselves indoors.   Get out and ride, cycle for (mental and physical) health; there’s never a better time of the year than now.